Authority in the Local Church—A Comparative Study | Part 1

This paper was presented to Dr. Gregg R. Allison, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for 27080.

Politics, simply put, is the science of organizing life together.[1] The New Testament’s vision of the church is high and lofty; she is the very vehicle through which God will display his manifold wisdom to a watching cosmos (Eph 3:10). And yet, the confluence of these two subjects—polity and the local church—has been the object of much neglect; apathy toward church polity has consistently pervaded modern minds. How the church is to be governed is often left to modern pragmatics, or at worst it is simply an after-thought or inconsequential.

But what does polity have to do with the church displaying God’s manifold wisdom? I will argue that polity has much more to do than simply making decisions. Indeed, when we consider the church’s vocation, the subject of authority necessarily precedes these ideas. Thus, what distinguishes this polity model from that polity model pertains to the idea of who possesses authority and responsibility.[2]


What distinguishes this polity model from that polity model pertains to the idea of who possesses authority and responsibility.


In these series of posts, I will survey several perspectives of church polity, perhaps known more familiar to you as ‘church government’. Here’s my cards on the table: I will be arguing in favour of an elder-led congregational model as opposed to an episcopal, presbyterian, and an elder-rule model of church government. I believe the elder-led congregational model most accurately adheres to biblical theological ideas of 1) the divine image’s function, 2) the new covenant realities promised in Scripture, 3) best makes sense of the New Testament’s presentation of the two types of authority present in the church—that of the elders and the congregation—without flattening or exaggerating these two authorities.

Preliminary Statements

We’ll look at the various models of church government starting in the next post, but before that I think it is also necessary that I explain a few assumptions that I’ll be operating from.

First, polity is inevitable. We are not like the Quakers and Darbyites who apply gnostic ideals to common ecclesial life together, who assume that earthly and human authority are somehow at odds with so-called spiritual or divine authority.[3] To be “a people” inherently speaks of criteria that distinguishes members from non-members, as well as rule structures that guide behaviours of said group. Therefore, the real question then becomes which polity model is the most coherent, orderly, and biblical?[4]

Second, polity therefore matters. What are the actual criteria and rule structures that govern the people of God? I am of the conviction that church polity ought to be an outgrowth of gospel faith; it should fit together, as Jonathan Leeman argues, with the promises of the new covenant, the work of the Spirit, the doctrines of sin and sola fide, the lordship of Christ, the priestly regency of believers, and the already/not yet realities of inaugurated eschatology.[5]


To be “a people” inherently speaks of criteria that distinguishes members from non-members, as well as rule structures that guide behaviours of said group.


Third, I will be working under the assumption that the New Testament presents a polity that should be; that is, one that is prescriptive and binding on churches across time and space.[6]

Fourth, and finally, Jesus Christ is the head of the church and is her ultimate authority and ruler. This much is evident from Scripture (John 10:16; Eph 1:22). This means that these posts will be defining authority in terms of its earthly structures, assuming that they function under the rule and, in submission to, Christ.

Look out for the next post where I survey the episcopal and presbyterian models of church government.


[1] Mark E. Dever, The Church, The Gospel Made Visible, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 47.

[2] Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism, (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 8.

[3] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 6th rev., (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1979),

579.

[4] Mark E. Dever, Baptist Foundations: Government for an Anti-Institutional Age, ed. Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015), 1.

[5] Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members, 16.

[6] Bobby Jamieson, “Why New Testament Polity Is Prescriptive,” 9Marks Journal (July/August 2013): 5–18.

3 Comments

Comment here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s